The last mile's at risk in our hostile environment. Let’s go the extra mile to fix it

The web doesn’t work ‘cos the vandals used a candle

Opinion Most of us, from time to time, have grievances with our network operators. We complain, we leave bad reviews, we rage-post. But some aren't content with just whinging verbally. They take it up a notch and cut cables, lift street access covers and pour in petrol, they burn down masts.

The UK is seeing more of these attacks and the subsequent outages, Alternative network operators – who rely on larger networks and their fault fixing – want greater protection from the police and courts. They suffer from delays in repairs that customers blame them for, but which aren't under their control. It's partially the altnets' fault, sniffs UK meganet Openreach, for not keeping the paperwork up to date so we can tell where to send the trucks.

None of this is going to help much, if at all, to stop the problem from happening in the first place, although the idea of compulsory science classes for 5G vandals is very tempting. It does demonstrate how hard it is to physically secure last-mile data infrastructure. To be fair, this is a new problem, coming in with the internet and mobile devices, but in other places keeping data safe from harm when it has to go travelling has long been a headache.

It used to be a lot simpler, at least in the UK. There was one national network operator and two threats: nuclear war and terrorism. There wasn't much to be done about armageddon, so terrorism got the most attention. That really kicked off when someone – either the frankly bonkers Angry Brigade or Irish group the IRA bombed London's iconic GPO Tower in 1971. Opened in 1965, this carried the microwave links that made up the UK's pre-fiber backbone between London and points north. It was also a revolving restaurant and gift shop, at least until the dangers of mixing national infrastructure with millions of tourists was so effectively demonstrated.

From the '70s to the '90s, the most active threat continued to be the IRA. As microwaves gave way to fiber, the plan was to classify the new network's details as a state secret but there really wasn't much point. In any case, the Irish terrorist threat was over by 1998. As the broadband Internet revolution got going, security drifted off the radar. The last mile had never been on it - it had no chance.

Two decades later, and we're in a new hostile environment, intimately dependent on network access for living our lives, and the network is under attack as never before. Defining the enemy is hard. How does one describe the Houthi movement in Yemen threatening, possibly succeeding at, the cutting of subsea cables in the Red Sea? How many of the 5G protesting vandals had been radicalized by propaganda that had Russian state support? Stochastic terrorism is real – thanks internet. A system that's prone to multiple small attacks is vulnerable to attacks at scale.

It doesn't matter that the infrastructure is vulnerable to anyone so minded. Catching them and locking them up, and knowing where the cable's broken won't change that. This is true worldwide, not just in the UK.

There are things that can be fixed, at least to the point where acts of last mile vandalism have much less effect, but they all have costs. Some are obvious. Stop putting cabling in easy to reach, easy to breach ducting. Get rid of street furniture cabinets that can be opened by anyone with the nous to nick, build or buy a security key. Stop thinking of the last mile as telephones where an outage is almost always an inconvenience rather than profound isolation, start remembering that this is a national network just as much as it's a skein of different operators with different levels of regulation and oversight.

The most important idea, however, is redundancy. We know this and we practice it, whether as data comms professionals supporting enterprises with multiple independent links connections, or as homelab rats wiring our third-party routers to cellular failover. None of this is accessible to everyone else, nor is it often affordable. There is no cell tariff optimized for insurance, offering brief bursts of high speed affordable data without a monthly fee for doing nothing the rest of the time, let alone one that works across cellular network operators. No mainstream domestic ISP offer includes a router configured for failover.

These things can be fixed: the extra hardware for cellular access is inexpensive, the extra load on the mobile networks will be tiny, and making cross network access available is a decision, not an invention.

Why stop there? ISPs themselves may not be prone to vandalism, but they have outages as if they are. At a higher level, let's think how network operators could failover to the competition. As with domestic cellular failover, the idea wouldn't be to keep providing a full-fat service, but to keep the lights on. Not everything on your Wi-Fi can tether to your phone instead, and that's vastly more true for many without the knowledge, data plan or ability to tether or use their mobile as their main device. A connection that keeps working should be at least a universal option, at best a default.

Setting a minimum level of service for all operators, fixed and mobile, would be a huge step forward against vandalism, coordinated physical attacks, and other hazards. Let's go even further. It would be even more interesting to make compliance with such ideas a condition of market entry for companies like Starlink, which is a long way away from arsonists and is keen to boast of its nearly 10,000 space lasers, petabytes of bandwidth, and direct-to-mobile links. This is before Starship starts orbiting Starlink satellites in lots of a hundred per launch. It doesn't even need subsea cables. Hand it over, Elon.

The engineering is all doable if the will is there to demand it, and that will come not from tweaking the edges and indifferent regulation but by seeing the internet as a vital national resource that should be protected as such.

Who knows, perhaps one day we'll even figure out how to make it all work during a power cut. We did it for telephones, after all. ®

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